Review by Derrick Carter
Running Time: 1 hour 37 minutes
MPAA Rating: R
Directed by: Mick Jackson
Written by: James Hicks
Starring: Gary Oldman, Dennis Hopper, Frances McDormand, Pamela Reed, Ned Beatty & M. Emmet Walsh
Though it was produced by the same folks who brought us PLATOON and HOOSIERS, 1990’s CHATTAHOOCHEE (filmed in 1989) has gone far under the radar for many. There are understandable reasons for that, but also plenty of reasons why this film is worth recommending. The biggest deterrent for why not to watch CHATTAHOOCHEE would be how melodramatic the material gets at points, but the biggest reason to watch it is for yet another brilliant performance from Gary Oldman in top form. Based on the accounts of Chris Calhoun, this drama examines the horrible treatment that asylums would use in pre-1970’s America (specifically Florida) and how one man did his damndest to right the wrongs that he was witnessing on a daily basis. Admirable intentions and an emotional story aside, the film sort of suffers from Mick Jackson (who was previously only associated with TV productions) making a shaky first step into a theatrical feature.
Emmett Foley is a Korean War veteran suffering from severe shell shock. One day, out of the blue, he decides to attempt suicide. His radical stint lands him in the Florida state mental institution of Chattahoochee. Emmett is appalled by the horrible conditions that he’s placed in and finds the will to live again through helping fellow patients at the facility. These patients are literally living in their own filth and sadistic guards constantly abuse them. There also seems to be a distinct lack of treatment going on in the would-be hospital as the doctors and staff seem less than interested in actually taking care of their patients…and more interested in receiving easy paychecks. Emmett’s protests of the indignities suffered by those around him, and his frequent letters to people on the outside, draw the ire of the staff. He may have the strength to prevail against the horrible conditions and regain his humanity.
Gary Oldman is amazing as Emmett. Though this was one of his earlier roles (right after SID & NANCY and PRICK UP YOUR EARS), Oldman was proving himself to be an acting tour-de-force. Appearing gaunt, unhinged and displaying his broken mental state on his face, Oldman is easily the best thing about CHATTAHOOCHEE. He’s not the only quality performer here though, because Dennis Hopper is also in top form as a former criminal committed to the asylum due to overpopulation in the prison system. Though it seems like Hopper’s character might be a hard person to sympathize for (especially given his crime), he quickly becomes an emotional powerhouse and Emmett’s best friend. Not all of the performances are stellar though as Frances McDormand overacts as Emmett’s wife. Though her character would naturally be distraught, she goes a bit too over-the-top weepy in the role. Meanwhile, Pamela Reed starts off in a similar overacting fashion, but balances out to give the single most satisfying scene in the whole film.
To be blunt, the material of this movie sort of sounds like it was perfect for a TV movie of the week fodder. That’s not being disrespectful towards the actual horrible abuse of mental patients as that is terrible beyond all words, but you can imagine how a filmmaker might try to play up melodramatic angles. That’s pretty much what parts of this script do. However, I was always compelled by what I was seeing and the film is appropriately upsetting enough to make you glad that you live in a more enlightened age of medicine and psychological treatments. The biggest issues with CHATTAHOOCHEE don’t come in an overly sappy screenplay though. Instead they come with a few bad production values that include unconvincing dubbing on more than one occasion and two poorly executed brawl scenes between Oldman and the guards. The first of these is shot with way too many cuts and confusing shaky camera work. The second feels staged and unconvincing. These technical mistakes briefly took me out of an otherwise good film.
If anything, CHATTAHOOCHEE is worth watching solely for the performances from Oldman and Hopper as well as getting a glimpse into the awful treatment that mental patients suffered in pre-1970’s America. The screenplay does play up the melodrama in parts, especially in a clichéd closing monologue. The movie is definitely flawed (both with a few noticeable filmmaking errors and one really over-the-top performance by Frances McDormand), but it’s still interesting and has good intentions at heart. Though it could have been much better in other hands, CHATTAHOOCHEE is well worth a viewing.